The Pearl Manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x) is one of the most important texts in English literature. The codex was written and illuminated in the late 14th century, in southern England, possibly London. The unassuming appearance of the Pearl Manuscript belies its incalculable importance to our knowledge of English literature.
Beautiful Script and Charming Miniatures
Of modest format, the Pearl manuscript is decorated with a series of engaging full-page illustrations and is written in a textura rotunda script with Anglican features.
It is worth noticing that the Pearl manuscript represents the sole extant source of four poems – two of them undeniable masterpieces of early English literature – which witness a significant and impressive flowering of literary creativity towards the end of the 14th century.
The Pearl Manuscript: Near-destruction and Oblivion
The Pearl Manuscript narrowly escaped destruction from the fire which in 1731 damaged the library bequeathed to the nation by the antiquarian Robert Cotton (1571–1631), resulting in the permanent loss of a huge quantity of medieval manuscripts.
Only in 1839 its most famous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was edited and published alongside a number of other Gawain romances, later followed by other poems from the manuscript, namely Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience.
Pearl Poem: the First of 4 Allegorical Works
The manuscript takes its name after one of the poems it contains; the Pearl poem is an allegorical poem which tells the story bereaved father who, having fallen asleep, finds himself in the Terrestrial Paradise engaging in dialogue about Christian doctrine.
The Tale of Sir Gaiwain: Apex of Arthurian Romance
The last poem of the manuscript represents it most famous work: the tale of Sir Gawain who accepts the Green Knight’s challenge to behead him, on condition that he submits to the same fate a year and a day later.
Gawain, having beheaded the Green Knight starts his journey to the place where his fate will occur, thus making the character the ultimate example of the chivalric code, and for this reason, the story is one of the best known of all Arthurian romances.
Author and Artist?
Due to the several characteristics and feature that all four poems share – such as versification, alliteration, and use of abstract ideas – there is a general belief that all four poems were composed by one author, generally known as the Pearl poet or Gawain poet.
The manuscript features 12 illustrations which some scholars have suggested are the work of the writer. What can be stated with certainty is that the manuscript was written in the second half of the 14th century, a period of intense poetic activity which coincided with the reign of Richard II (1377–99).
- Olsen, Kenna L. Cleanness: A Diplomatic Edition with Textual, Codicologial, and Paleographical Notes. Publications of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project 1. Calgary: Cotton Nero A.x. Project, 2011.
- Folio Society website